Belonging Matters

Belonging Matters

Wise Interventions with Prof. Greg Walton

While you may want to believe that the students who greet you in class are focused on learning, the reality is their capacity to learn effectively will be mitigated by an internal dialog that goes something like this:

“Wow, look at all these smart Stanford students. Am I the only one who doesn’t get this assignment? How did I even get in here? It’s probably because I’m Latina/black/tall/short/from Idaho/from Vietnam/you get the picture. And that’s probably why my dorm ‘forgot’ to invite me fountain hopping last week. I’m a total misfit. Probably gonna fail this class and get kicked out of Stanford.”

With all that going on in their heads, is it any wonder they’re struggling to pay attention in your lecture? They’re probably checking Facebook to see if anyone "likes" them.

So how do you get them out of their ruminations and into your classroom, focused and ready to learn? In February, in CTL’s first Learning Matters event, Prof. Greg Walton shared with 150 undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and staff how to do just that.

Greg’s most recent study describes an elegant and straightforward intervention aimed at increasing students’ sense of belonging which in turn has a significant positive impact on academic performance. His research on belonging has emerged from his earlier work with Graduate School of Education Dean Claude Steele on stereotype threat which began in the 1990s. The intervention draws on a sort of “pay it forward” model in which students, after learning of a survey that showed all students struggle with a sense of belonging, are asked to write about their experiences coming into college as freshmen. While participants think they are writing in an effort to support future students-who-will-believe-themselves-to-be-misfits, in fact the process of writing changes their own attitudes about belonging. In his study, the message is further reinforced by having the participants deliver their essay as a videotaped testimonial.

During the workshop, Greg had his audience replicate the first part of the intervention: we spent a few minutes writing about our memories of coming to college, what was difficult, and what made things better. For folks like me, for whom 30+ years has faded many memories or many things, it didn’t take much to recall with great clarity those awful first days as a sophomore transfer at rainy Reed College. I had a cast on my leg and was terribly nervous about talking to total strangers.  For the first six months I was sure I didn’t belong, either.

Stanford does tremendous work to support new students – through NSO, through a specific advising effort for transfer, non-traditional, and returning students. But nothing we can say to students is nearly as potent as what they can say to each other. What kinds of opportunities have you been able to create in your classroom that helps students support each other? Keep the conversation going and post your comments below.


This study sounds fascinating. I remember being warned about "impostor syndrome" when I interviewed at Stanford and subsequently experiencing it upon my arrival the following autumn. Being surrounded by so many brilliant minds was remarkable, but also wildly intimidating. However, having been warned about this feeling of inadequacy by a senior grad student in my lab made me feel less alone and really helped a lot. I think addressing these issues in an environment that promotes peer interaction is very important.